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Theatre: are we f***ed?

The UK is in recession – which means the economy has been shrinking for most of the last year. 

Theatre is increasing being preserved for the wealthy, which will disproportionately affect the next generation of theatregoers

There has been a lot of discourse about ticket prices since the £400 tickets for Cock starring Taron Egerton fiasco. 

So let’s start with actor David Harewood: “My wife went to the theatre the other day, it cost her nearly £200 – who could afford that?”

Indeed, Harewood, Rada’s first black President, explained that theatre is at risk of ‘vanishing’ because of soaring costs and needs to be protected. 

Hard to argue with that.

Without wishing to over-egg a pudding that is already 90% meringue, audiences need increased transparency in ticket sales, and protecting from overpriced tickets.

In related news, then, Cameron Mackintosh Ltdrecently saw turnover almost double year on year – to £186 million – as the company reported its first full 12 months of accounts since the pandemic. Still, Mackintosh famously said “Theatre’s excellence comes at a price.”

Some guys have all the luck.

Plaza Suite in the West End, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, is selling “premium” seats at £395 (plus a £3.80 transaction fee!). That’s more than the average weekly rent for a studio flat in Primrose Hill.

Where does this end? Who are the people other than billionaire theatre owners, paid publicists, lapdoggy influencers and ATG staff defending premium prices? Literally nobody.

Increasingly, however, it’s not just me and David Harewood who are alarmed about eye-watering ticket prices.

Last year, Dominic West called West End ticket prices “crazy”.

Ralph Fiennes suggested to BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg that ticket prices are “worryingly high,” in the West End. “We can do it (lower prices),” he said.

David Tennant, recently said some theatre tickets had become “ludicrously” expensive and warned that young people would be deterred from going.

Society of London Theatre co-chief executive Claire Walker responded to Tennant’s criticism highlighting that average ticket prices had decreased when adjusted for inflation. Hmm.

Heck, even Patsy Ferran is uncomfortable with it all: “Theatre should be accessible. If tickets get to a certain price that only a very small amount of people can have access, it gets to be problematic… Prices have reached a point that is shocking to me, but maybe I should just get used to it.”

And it was unarguably powerful to hear Andrew Scott say seats costing £150 are driving away young people and risk keeping theatre ‘elitist’.

Scott told BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme: “No matter how zeitgeisty or how modern you think your play is, if you are having to spend £150, no person between the age of 16-25 or beyond is going to be able to afford that. That is frustrating to me.”

Of course, these criticisms have been flung at the West End for over a decade, and they routinely bounce off armour-plated titans like ATG, a company with all the too-big-to-fail swagger of a debt collection agency.

A recent survey by The Stage newspaper showed the average price of the most expensive tickets was £141, but the average price of the cheapest had risen by more than inflation to £25. The latter development is a serious concern; these prices are creeping closer to Broadway levels.

Well, according to theatre producer Patrick Gracey, top prices “reflect demand and the willingness and capacity to pay by those people who want the best possible seats.”

He stated that it can cost up to £350,000 a week to operate a West End musical, which means that the production might need to sell £500,000 of tickets that same week to meet its operating costs.

Anyway, Cush Jumbo summed things up recently: “Audiences would be shocked to know what the actors performing on that stage are getting (paid) a week” she says. “Because it wouldn’t pay for two of those seats.”

Alas, even with the painful cost of living crisis, people are still paying the crazy prices. Of course, I agree this is a sensible way to balance the economical challenges of producing star driven work, with a limited run in the West End in 2024. But if you are on £34,963 a year – the median annual salary in the UK in 2022 – and after you have paid tax and national insurance, it would represent around one week’s pay.

Anyhow, I can’t believe it even needs to be said out loud: if no theatre producers agree to dynamic pricing on their shows, it would cease to exist. Trotting out ‘supply and demand’ won’t cut it. Economically, short-term salvation lies in the middle-class pound that extends to interval champagne and cheeseboards.

Nevertheless, I guess we are where we are. But what if that place is Birmingham? Or Bristol? Communities will soon be paying the price of horrifying 100% cuts made by the city councils to many theatre’s arts funding, in a move that has been termed “cultural vandalism” by many.

A holy slap has been delivered to theatres, and even a business built on pretending increasingly no longer avoids acknowledging it.

Suffolk County Council is exploring a new funding model after the total withdrawal of investment. Meanwhile, senior Labour councillors in Nottingham have refused to back proposed recent council cuts that included an 100% reduction to arts funding.

Surely it is now time for the bigger theatres to develop more innovative approaches to pricing, and address head on the issue that keeps most people out of theatres: the fact that the cost of going is often disproportionate to the experience offered. 

The increasing number of lotteries for tickets are not the answer, either. Often these lotteries involve very few tickets. 

Bring back day seats.

With the world on the brink of nuclear armageddon, I know this all sounds like a lazy swipe at the West End for being an uncaring behemoth, and of course it is, but there’s a serious point. 

We have got a big problem.

Indeed, judging by the commercialisation of theatre, current elitist trends and hundreds of comments on social media around this topic, perhaps 2024 will be the year the West End finally becomes a place where the young, working class and state educated are no longer welcome. 

That would be a tragedy.